Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

May 13, 2010

With UN statement, backlash against Arizona goes international

With U.N. statement, backlash against Arizona goes international
Tucson/KGUN 9/Reporter: Sheryl Kornman and Forrest Carr

TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement Monday in Geneva calling out Arizona for a "disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants."

The U.N. statement, written with the help of a University of Arizona law professor, points at Arizona's new crackdown on illegal immigration, and also at a new Arizona law targeting the ethnic studies program at Tucson Unified School District.

In part, Arizona's new immigration law, SB 1070 as amended, makes local law enforcement officers responsible for carrying out what had been a federal agency task: taking into custody individuals who are suspected of being in the United States illegally.

The U.N. statement complains that the law requires police to determine the immigration status of individuals based on "just a reasonable suspicion" that they are in the country illegally. According to the statement, officers can arrest that person "without a warrant" if the officer has "probable cause" to believe the person is an illegal alien.

However, the statement fails to mention that SB 1070 allows a police officer to question a person's immigration status only if the officer has first stopped the suspect for some other offense. It also mischaracterizes the penalties SB 1070 mandates for being in the country illegally, saying that the offense is "punishable by up to six months in jail." For the simple act of being in the country illegally, the final version of SB 1070 actually allows a maximum penalty of only 30 days in jail, even for repeat offenders.

The statement also expresses concern that the new law may lead to "detaining and subjecting to interrogation persons primarily on the basis of their perceived ethnic characteristics." The final version of SB 1070 removed race and national origin as a reason to question someone's immigration status, "except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution." The U.N. document acknowledges the change, but notes that "legal experts differ" about what that amended language really means.

The U.N. statement urges "the state of Arizona and the United States Government to take all measures necessary to ensure that the immigration law is in line with international human rights standards." Those standards, adopted in 1990, aim to protect migrant workers and their families around the world.

The document also attacks HB 2281, the new Arizona law restricting certain practices within public school ethnic studies programs. The statement sharply criticizes Arizona Schools Superintendent Tom Horne, who pushed for the law, saying that he has "repeatedly stated that the law is aimed at eradicating particular existing ethnic studies programs that provide instruction featuring the history, social dynamics, and cultural patterns of Mexican-Americans in the United States." Horne has said that TUSD's program promotes "ethnic chauvinism" and racial resentment toward whites. The law, which Governor Brewer signed on Tuesday, bans programs that teach ethnic solidarity or promote resentment toward any ethnic group.

TUSD has said its program does no such thing and has promised to defend it. The U.N. statement supports that idea, saying, "Everyone has the right to seek and develop cultural knowledge and to know and understand his or her own culture and that of others through education and information."

The plain language of HB 2281 does not actually ban ethnic studies. In fact, it specifically allows them, provided they are open to all students, do not advocate the overthrow of the U.S. government, and don't violate the restrictions against promoting ethnic solidarity or resentment against any ethnic groups. That fact cut Arizona no slack with the U.N. human rights team, which wrote, "such law and attitude are at odds with the State's responsibility to respect the right of everyone to have access to his or her own cultural and linguistic heritage and to participate in cultural life. Everyone has the right to seek and develop cultural knowledge and to know and understand his or her own culture and that of others through education and information."

The U.N. statement states that the two new laws "raise serious doubts about... compatibility with relevant international human rights treaties to which the United States is a party." But the statement does not propose penalties or sanctions.

A team of six well-respected human rights experts wrote the statement. One of them, S. James Anaya, is a professor of law at the University of Arizona in Tucson. According to his University bio, Anaya teaches human rights law and policy, and has worked on the United Nations human rights team since 2008. In response to a query from KGUN9 News, a law department spokesperson said Anaya is out of the country and not immediately available for comment.

The other five members of the team are:

Gay McDougall of the United States
Jorge A. Bustamante of Mexico
Mr. Githu Muigai of Kenya
Farida Shaheed of Pakistan
Vernor Muñoz Villalobos of Costa Rica

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